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Mitt Romney plays softball at the GOP debate

January 24, 2008 |  7:49 pm

Mitt Romney must have read today's New York Times article that probed why his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination seem to especially dislike him. That's because, presented with an early opportunity at tonight's candidate debate in Florida to recycle faults he's found in two of his opponents, he decided to play nice.

Meanwhile, his vigilant campaign team made sure, through e-mails, that John McCain would catch at least some grief.

The debate began on friendly ground for Romney, with questions about the nation's economic problems and how he would address them. Much as he tried -- with mixed success -- virtually all of last year to persuade his party that his conversion to conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage and the like was sincere, much as he tried to show he would be tough on fighting terrorism by refusing to disavow waterboarding as an interrogation technique, his business background makes the economy the subject he is most comfortable talking about.

As part of the discussion, co-moderator Tim Russert noted that Romney had criticized McCain and Rudy Giuliani as, based on their records, insufficiently committed to tax cuts. Russert asked if Romney ...

trusted the two "on the issue of being tax cutters?"

Romney -- projecting a kinder, gentler persona than he has at previous debates -- cut the pair some slack.

"I trust these two gentlemen and I respect them greatly," he said. "We do have differing views, and over time our record with regards to taxes has been somewhat different.  But I think all of us on this stage want to see taxes brought down and want to see (government) spending brought down."

His answer may have set the tone for what continued to be a low-key, highly civil forum (especially in contrast to the Democratic face-off earlier this week).

During the focus on economics, Russert asked McCain about a remark attributed to him: "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

McCain replied: "Actually, I don't know where you got that quote from. I'm very well versed in economics."

Within minutes, the well-oiled Romney camp was out with its e-mail, citing this McCain quote from a 2005 article in (written by Stephen Moore, an anti-tax advocate): 'I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

The e-mail also cited a more recent Boston Globe article with this McCain quote: "The issue
of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."

Romney has spent a lot of money -- much of it from his own pocket; exactly how much, he declined later in the debate to reveal -- on his campaign. Whatever he spent on his war room was worth it on this night.

-- Don Frederick